No Malaysia, sport cannot unite a nation

No Malaysia, sport cannot unite a nation
By Zan Azlee

WHEN a person says that sport is the key to a nation’s unity, especially in Malaysia, I get mildly irritated. Well, maybe not mildly because the statement spurred me to write this week’s column, and the person in question is Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Last weekend, the PM launched National Sports Day and made a speech where he talked about how obesity is a problem in this country because Malaysians love food but not sports. He then went on to say that sports can promote unity.

I have no doubt that sports can promote unity – but only for a moment. Take for example, when Malaysia’s number one badminton player Lee Chong Wei, who is a Malaysian Chinese, plays in a tournament. The whole of Malaysia will united and stand behind him.

It’s great to see the whole nation set aside their problems and give this one man its full support. It happens during the Thomas Cup, the Olympics, and other international badminton tournaments all around the world.

But what happens after the tournament? Everybody goes back to their normal polarised lives. And in Malaysia, the polarisation is systemic. It is in the political system and bureaucracy, and all it does is divide the nation along racial lines.

The political system itself is built on parties that are racially-based. The ruling party is made up of a coalition – a Malay party (Umno), Chinese parties (MCA, GERAKAN), Indian parties (MIC, PPP) and other numerous indigenous parties in East Malaysia. The opposition isn’t much different.

The government’s bureaucracy still carries out archaic affirmative action that favours the majority race: the Malays. There are racial quotas in almost every aspect of Malaysian life – from business and entrepreneurship to even education.

Last year, there was a local film called Ola Bola, which is a retelling of the inspiring story of the Malaysian national football team which beat South Korea in a nail-biting match to qualify for the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.

The film was a hit amongst the Malaysian people.So I find it utterly ridiculous to hear the Prime Minister, who is the president of an ethnic Malay-based party, saying that sports can unite the nation, when his administration isn’t taking proper measures to promote real unity rather than this superficial unity.

In the real match, the player who had scored the winning goal for Malaysia was Chinese Malaysian James Wong from Sabah. However, in the movie, the character who scored that goal was changed to a Malay player named Ali.

What was the reason behind the filmmaker’s decision to change the goal scorer from a Chinese to a Malay? If sports was really something that can promote unity, why not keep to the historic truth? What does this really say about the unspoken social contract that exists in Malaysian society?

Malaysians loved the film so much that it became one of the highest grossing films in Malaysia in 2016. People were saying how inspirational the story is and how the players that made up the multi-racial national team united and made the country proud.

Then they all left the movie theatre and nothing happened. The country continues to be polarised. The majority Malays still feel entitled and privileged. The non-Malays still feel sidelined and bitter.

Politicians are still manipulating the public with racial sentiments and rhetoric. Identity politics is still being used to create smokescreens. And nobody is doing anything to remedy the problem.

Everyone is just harping on with arbitrary rhetoric like ‘sport is the key to a nation’s unity’.

[This article was originally written for and published at]

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